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Friday, September 02, 2005

ELEGY TO A CITY

"Lo! Death has reared himself a throne
In a strange city, lying alone
Far down within the dim West,
Where the good and the bad and the worst and
the best
Have gone to their eternal rest."
Edgar Allan Poe 1809-1849 "The City In the Sea" 1831 st. 1

Such a tragedy, this horrifying destruction of beautiful New Orleans and the terrible anguish facing Her people. I have felt heartsick as I've watched and read the news reports of this horrendous event. New Orleans was always a city of my dreams, a place I'd wanted to visit since my teens. Perhaps I first got the yen to visit after seeing the stage production (and later the movie) of A Streetcar Named Desire. Perhaps it was later, when I first started listening to jazz and blues music and learned of its southern roots. (Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino and all those great musicians!) But it wasn't until 1994 when my dream was realized.

My friend Sylvie and I decided to go to the Mardis Gras. What an experience! Certainly that will never be forgotten. It made me want to see more of New Orleans. I've always wanted to go back sometime in the Spring when the magnolias were in bloom. Now, to see it all destroyed is so heartbreaking!

I was leafing through my travel writing portfolio the other day and ran across the articles I wrote about my visit to New Orleans. So as a tribute to this wonderful old city, and the exceptionally warm and friendly people I'd met there, I will include here some parts of my articles as a tribute to the City.

Like a rich, savory gumbo, spiced with just the right combination of ingredients, New Orleans is a feast for all senses. From hot cuisine to cool jazz, as the refrain goes: "You'll know what it means to miss New Orleans" once you've experienced this unique city.

Seasoned with a blend of history, charm and joie de vivre, this genteel 280 year old metropolis, cradled in a bend of the Mississippi River, is a city where you can lose yourself in time. As you stroll under the ornate wrought iron balconies of the French Quarter or meander on the manicured lawns of gracious colonial estates, its a rare opportunity to see and experience the Southern way of life.

Since the days when the fabled pirates Jean and Pierre Lafitte haunted Bourbon Street, New Orleans has had the reputation of being one of the most dangerous cities in America. But don't let this intimidate you, because it is equally renown for its southern hospitality. People are friendly here, and you can get a conversation started instantly by talking about cooking, food or music.

In New Orleans, there's music everywhere: blues, jazz, lively Cajun two-step. Bourbon Street is famous for its jazz clubs. Busker entertain on every street corner while little boys tap-dance on the curb. You can sing along with a banjo player strumming on the wharf, or watch a junior version of Louis Armstrong, a boy not more than ten years old, wailing on a trumpet in Jackson Square. In this bold, decadent city, a host of famous musicians had their start. In "N'awlins" Perservation Hall, Dixiland jazz was born.

I wonder what has become of the many beautiful colonial plantation houses near the city. I know some of them were close to the levees.

If you want a touch of the romantic south, visit the plantation homes near New Orleans. While sipping on a mint julep under the oaks of Oak Alley, you cannot help but find yourself transported into the world of Scarlet O'Hara and Rhett Butler. As you look out on the green lawns and gracious Greek Revival architecture of the manor, you are offered a clear view of the past.

So much history has been destroyed and can never be replaced even if they do rebuild the city.
And what about the bayous where the Cajuns have lived since the 1800's.

The boat glides down the narrow channels where egret, blue heron and water fowl nest among the red swamp maples. Grey-green tufts of Spanish moss hang from the ciypress trees. Snapping turtles sun themsleves on the mud banks. These turtles, which grow to an immense size, can sanp off a stick with their jaws.

Poisonous snakes such as the copper head and water-moccasin lurk in the moss and the root systems of the trees making it a dangerous occupation for the Cajun folk who pick the Spanish moss for sale to florists.

In spring and summer, water hyacinths cover the murkey surface of these forboding waterways concealing the deadly alligators which the guide and his father hunt.

Of course, it's also hard to imagine a year passing by in New Orleans without the traditional Mardis Gras when more than two million people jam into the French Quarter to celebrate.

New Orlean's grandest celebration, Mardis Gras, was brought to New Orleans from Europe in 1870. Carnival is a mystical combination of Christian beliefs, pagan rituals, glamour and debauchery that begins twelve days after Christmas when Balls are held, hosted by the carnival "krewes" to choose the King and Queen of "misrule."

There are things you will see in New Orleans during Mardis Gras that you will never experience anywhere else. The balconies of the French Quarter are hung with purple, yellow and green streamers and flags, the Mardis Gras colors. The streets literally run with beer and are ankle deep with rubbish and discarded plastic cups. Anything goes during Mardis Gras, and the New Orleans police, who are visible everywhere, are tolerant and polite but very firm in enforcing the law if necessary.

The parade floats, lavishly decorated with feathers, flowers and stereamers of vibrant hues are manned by the masked and costumed krewes and carry guest celebrities. A freezing gale howls down St. Charles Street but fails to chill the enthusiasm of the revelers.

But Mardis gras is just one day and by midnight the party is over. New Orleans mounted policemen sweep through the French Quarter followed by the street cleaners who wipe away all traces of Carnival for another year. By morning the streets of Vieux Carre are spotless and the crowds of merrymakers have gone. You can once again enjoy New Orleans in all its elegance.

I wonder if we ever will again!

"We have come over a way that with tears has
been watered
We have come, treading our path through the
blood of the slaughtered."
John Weldon Johnson 1871-1938 "Lift Every Voice and Sing" 1900 st. 2

3 comments:

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Sam said...

It is a tragedy. I remember New Orleans (was there once 20 yrs ago) as such a friendly, musical, artistic place.
I hope they fix the levees and repair the city. Those poor people who have no where to go - it is so depressing. It's even more depressing to think that the same thing happened to other places, and there was never really any follow-up. Did the people ever go home? Were they able to find their familes and get new jobs?

Wynn Bexton said...

What distresses me so much is that nearly every photo I've seen it is nearly all African Americans. Did all the white people get out? What's going on there? And I'm frankly disgusted with the way things have been handled right from the word go. They knew there was going to be a disaster. They were warned of it. So how come it has taken so long for the aid to start arriving? Yes..and what about those other communities who were also hit? I am horrified and disgusted!